When I got my first modema speedy 2400bits per secondI had three options for going online. I could dial directly into a system that other people were using and connect to the services that it offered. There were lots of bulletin board systems of this kind, and many offered email, which was just stored on that server until the receiver dialed in to collect it.
The next option was an online service provider (OSP). There were two big ones: AOL and CompuServe. These were what a BBS grew into if you fed and watered it enough. They were moderate-sized networks with thousands of concurrent users and a lot of hosted content. More importantly, they offered connections to other networks, such as the Internet. If you signed up to AOL, you got access to all of the AOL content and an AOL email address that you could use to communicate with other AOL users. You could access the web via a gateway, although they charged per minute for doing this. Eventually, AOL email addresses became Internet email addresses @aol.com, and CompuServe email addresses became Internet email addresses @compuserve.com.
Finally, there was the option of an Internet service provider (ISP). These didn't host much content; many of the smaller ones only had a few hundred users, with a dozen or so online at a time. Their value came not from their own content, but from their connectivity. While AOL gave you access to everyone on AOL, an ISP gave you access to everyone on any ISP.
The gradual decline of OSPs in favor of ISPs came from a simple fact: Open protocols and standards mean that closed networks are not competing with individual competitors, but with the sum of all of their competitors.
The same thing happened with telephone networks almost a hundred years earlier. Originally, there were lots of small, local networks. When they started to connect to each other, there was a huge advantage in being on one of the connected ones, rather than the isolated ones.
Something similar happened with instant messaging. I got an account on ICQ in 1998, when it was new and cool. Then, a few years later, I found a lot of my friends were on MSN Messenger, but there was no interoperability between the two. I also discovered a relatively new open source instant messaging system, called Jabber. If I ran a Jabber server, I could run bridges to the Microsoft and AOL networks on the server.
When I started using Jabberwhich later became the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP)only a few of my friends were using it, and 90 percent of my contacts were accessed via the bridges. It was still more convenient, because I only had a single username and password to log in to all of them, and a shared contact list, but somewhat missing the point of an open network.
Recently, I shut down the AOL transport on my server. I still use the MSN transport, but most of my contacts are now using XMPP. A lot of them use Google's server, but quite a few use others. When Google launched Google Talk, it wasn't an IM network with no users; it was one with about 10 million existing users, on a load of different servers, that suddenly Google users could talk to.
Social Networks: The New OSPs
In the last few years, there's been a huge amount of buzz surrounding Facebook. In common with most people who have actually read their conditions of service, I never signed up, but I did pay attention to the number of people who did.
Facebook has many of the same characteristics as the old OSPs. Its value to users comes from its own hosted content and from its ability for Facebook users to communicate with other Facebook users. It's a completely closed system. If you're not on Facebook, you can't access its services. When a company has a Facebook page instead of a proper website, they lose my business immediately. Not out of a sense of moral outrage, simply because I can't access their Facebook content. In the mid '90s, the same thing happened when companies had a CompuServe page instead of a web page. I didn't use the same network as them, so I couldn't do business with them.
Since I proposed this article to my editor, Google has launched another social network. Like Facebook, it's a closed system, but it does play a bit better with others. I've also chosen not to sign up to Google+, but quite a few of my friends have. When they post blog entries, I can read them without needing to sign up. If they create a circle to send announcements, I can get those messages via email. In short, I can participate with a lot of their social networking, without needing to be a member of the same system as them.